Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Vincent Moore's History of the Twentieth Century, Ctd.

Explanation and Part 1 here.

4. The forties

In 1940, about to turn 30, my father was conscripted into the British forces and, like millions of his contemporaries, thrown head first into the Second World War.

He’d done some preparing. Seeing what was coming, he had enrolled in the Territorials, the British militia reserve. That, along with his 1930s transition from near-working-class apprentice to owner and proprietor, presumably helped get him into Officer Candidate School, to emerge and be posted as a new lieutenant to an old and aristocratic cavalry unit, mostly devoted in peacetime to riding to hounds and country house socials, now reorganized as an armoured regiment. Apparently a good many non-gentry officers like my father were added to the regiment for wartime service.

From the North African landings of November 1942 until the end of hostilities in Europe, the regiment and my father were pretty much continuously engaged in combat, in Tunisia and then in Italy, in armoured cars in the desert, in Sherman tanks up the Italian peninsula. Wounded in the Po Valley, he saw war’s end as a major on Sixth Armoured Division staff. He had a good war, people said in those days, meaning he saw action and came out with an impressive rank and a notable decoration. He had a good war, we’d say, in that he was not among the killed and was not left crippled or brutalized by his experiences – despite, as his citation says, “an almost reckless disregard for his own safety.” In 1943, that was high praise.

Like so many other young men in wartime, he also found a spouse whom he would never otherwise have encountered. Before going into combat, his regiment trained in Scotland, where he met my mother. My mother’s family was Presbyterian, Scots, and middle-class, a business and farming family; they farmed some of the land on which my father’s regiment trained. My father was a commissioned officer then, but he was still English-Irish, a Roman Catholic, a policeman’s son, in his early thirties, and about to be sent to war -- and she was barely twenty. What my grandparents may have thought of Lt. Moore and their daughter, I am unsure, but my mother had an adventurous streak. His first home leave was in the summer of 1945, and they were married on August 15 – the day Japan surrendered. He soon went back to his newspaper career. Like millions of others, they began contributing to the postwar baby boom.

I was much aware of “the war” as a child, but the thing my father seemed to bring away with him, more than the horrors he experienced, was a sense of the army as an organization – big, slow-moving, insensitive, and perfectly prepared to have you killed if it needed to but, if you could master it, ultimately just a big machine, and in its way a model for many other kinds of organization. Family trips, business plans, anything that needed organization – those were the occasions that brought out military memories and my father’s store of military slang. The army left him, you might say, curiously prepared for the ‘fifties.
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